Watching Black Panther made me way more confident in my natural hair
To a black woman, hair isn’t just hair.
We all know the phrase “representation matters.” It’s one we’ve familiarized ourselves with lately in order to better navigate our political climate, and rightfully so. It’s a mindset stemming from people of color’s need to be seen, heard, portrayed in the media we’re being fed.
And though we’ve seemingly come a long way with regard to women of color being actively participating in mainstream media after fighting so long and hard for the opportunity to do so, hair remains a sore spot for most black women.
Growing up, I wanted a weave, long before I even knew what in fresh hell a weave was. On a distinct morning before pre-school I broke my mom’s heart by insisting on going to school with a long-sleeve shirt on top of my head because it felt like “long straight hair” (I wish I had photographic evidence to supplement this anecdote, but it probably would have been fucked up of my mom to take a photo in that moment) (though I would have).
I wanted straight hair so badly, and even though I now have braids, I’m not even sure that I don’t still want it. I mean, we all know why. The few women of color that were portrayed in the media I consumed growing up (Raven Symone, Keke Palmer, and even more recently, Beyonce, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis) not to mention literally every other aspirational female protagonist ever all have one thing in common: straight hair.
“People want what they can’t have,” people told me. And for a while, I rationalized my internalized racism and accepted that it was as simple as this. After a while though, I called BS and came to realize that it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Yes, people with curly hair tend to want straight hair and people with straight hair tend to perm it and short people want to be tall and tall people want to be petite. But the difference is the way in which black people are more or less bombarded by the media with aspirational images of “beautiful” people who look nothing like us, but who we are told we should want to look like.
Enter cognitive dissonance, stage left. The result is feeling like achieving the pinnacle standard of beauty is way out of our reach, because looking the way we do naturally isn’t good enough.
It may seem minute, but when no one has hair that looks like yours you start to ask questions. What’s wrong with mine? Is it ugly? How do I tame it? Why do I have to be so different from everyone else? Why can’t I just have “normal” hair? Such are the dangers of making straight hair the default and exoticising anything discrepant.
Enter assimilation, stage right.
But wait… times have changed. Or at least they’re starting to.
We’re celebrating black hair in a way we haven’t in a long time. Ten minutes into “Black Panther,” the first thing I noticed, and I mean the very first thing, was the fact that all of the characters had hair that I recognized and identified as the hair that grows from my head. Natural hair, and most importantly, a variety of natural hairstyles. Some characters had box braids, some wore short ‘fros, some had buzz cuts, some had dreadlocks. There was even a scene where one of the African characters is deployed to South Korea on a mission and wears a straight-haired wig as a part of her disguise, pointing out how uncomfortable it is and eventually using it to take out her adversary (no seriously, you need to see this movie).
It was the first of what seemed like a realistic reflection of the way so many of us wear our hair, on screen. It was visceral. I didn’t expect to notice it, but I did. And was surprisingly emo about it. It was also kind of crazy to think that this feeling I was feeling was undoubtedly one that white people take for granted all of the time.
Movies like “Black Panther” are changes that will help redefine the beauty standard we’ve all come to know, and will undoubtedly help us unlearn so many of the traditional Western ideals we hold of what is beautiful in our society.
Watching “Black Panther” made me so happy, because it made me realize that these are the movies I never had growing up (technically I’m still growing up, but whatever) and that other little kids will have it. Not just that, but seeing grown black men and women taking photos in front of the posters and dress up as the characters meant it was for us, too. Seeing Lupita Nyong’o rock her fro and Letitia Wright give her performance in box braids made me realize how, well, natural my natural hair is. These are the movies I’d look for but not find, where more than one character looks like me and has hair like mine and it isn’t this huge thing it’s just like… normal. Because black hair is normal. And normalizing blackness and black bodies is so important in terms of coming closer to understanding and acceptance, both amongst each other and within ourselves.
We likely have a long way to go before black hair and Western hair are portrayed as even remotely equal in terms of desirability; but these are the steps that must be taken to get there. These are the notions that make a difference. Soon, we’ll have more than just one, or a few movies to point to. We should feel represented in every movie, as well as other elements of media, without having to deny a part of ourselves or engage in emotional and physical labor in order to appease our non-black counterparts.
Here’s to hoping that America catches up to Wakanda in the near future.